Does (Glass) Size Matter – Red Wine?
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 5/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wine: 4/5
Size matters, as they say. But what of wine glasses? The available range in size, shape and cost is immense. How does one choose? Does one size fit all? What do you use at home? Most wine drinkers, I suggest regularly drink from one glass, whether white or red wine, their trusted and favourite one. We may have others: a flute, tulip or coupe for champagne and Cap Classique sparklers; a tumbler for spirits; a cocktail glass; a balloon glass for brandy; or even separate glasses for sherry and dessert/sweet wines. Most of these will lie at the back of the dresser or cupboard, as mine do, with the expensive ones saved for that ‘special occasion’. Instead, we use the same, durable wineglass for our everyday drinking. One does not have to look far to see the varietal glasses offered by the premium glass companies. The choice becomes baffling. There is one glass for Bordeaux, one for Burgundy, one for Syrah/Shiraz, one for Pinot Noir, one for Tempranillo, one for Zinfandel, one for Chianti and more. These are for red wines alone, let alone the others for white, sparkling and dessert wines.
Do they really make a difference to the tasting experience? The specialist glass companies and their marketing material will tell you so. The only way to know is to taste the same wine using different glasses. I have wanted to experiment and to try this for a long while. After all, there were 2 pairs of Zalto glasses that I bought 9 months ago from Great Domaines waiting for that ‘special occasion’ to use. Lockdown became that rainy-day occasion and so it seemed a perfect way to make tasting a red wine on ‘Taste Live with Dr Peter’ more appealing and interesting.
The red wine was the 2018 Stellenbosch Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The label forms part of the Rust en Vrede brand that pays homage to the birthplace of Jannie Engelbrecht, Springbok legend and owner of the iconic wine estate. Cabernet Sauvignon made an obvious choice as the world’s most planted and best-known grape variety. The wine? 2018 was a dry season and challenging at harvest due to fluctuating temperatures and rain. The Stellenbosch Reserve is mid-range in quality and price (R160) as well as wine-making – fermented in tanks with four times daily pump over and punch down, 14 days post-fermentation maceration and 12 months maturation in 20% new French oak barrels – and so made a perfect choice.
I selected 3 quite different glasses to compare. The first was a standard ISO 21.5cl glass, the sort that is typically found in many tasting rooms. Durable and inexpensive (retailing at R25, far cheaper when bought wholesale in bulk), it meets its purpose. It was the glass I used for my Cape Wine Academy and WSET Level 3 student studies. Second, was a Vinum glass made by Riedel and recommended for Bordeaux Cabernet and Merlot, for young, red wines that are full-bodied, complex and high in tannin. The cost was a big step-up from the ISO tasting glass (R400).
Riedel is an Austrian company, eleventh-generation family-owned, and the first to make machine-made varietal glasses. The glass was the perfect match for my test wine and, according to the marketing blurb, ‘smoothes out the rough edges, emphasizing the fruit, allowing the wine to achieve a balance that would normally take years of ageing to achieve’. Further, the generous size of the glass allowed the ‘the bouquet to develop fully … as the shape directs the flow of wine onto the zone of the tongue which perceives sweetness, thus accentuating the fruit and de-emphasising the bitter qualities of the tannin’. Heady and persuasive stuff, indeed. Riedel, it seems, did not get the message in 1974 that de-bunked the myth of the Tongue Map that posited that different parts of the tongue tasted different senses, with sweetness at the tip. Scientists later concluded that Harvard psychologist Dr Hanig in 1901 mis-translated a German paper to misconstrue differences in threshold sensitivity as differences in sensation. There is a lesson there – and it is not always to believe all the clever marketing speak.
The final glass was a top-of-the-range Zalto glass and one of the most expensive (R750 a copy) available in South Africa. Zalto too is an Austrian company but this, feather light, seamless glass was mouth blown. I carefully removed the tissue paper it was wrapped in from the box, mindful of the delicacy and long slender stem. The marketing description of it being ‘nearly too delicate to hold’ was at least more correct than that of Riedel. The Bordeaux glass, it said, was for wines ‘full of character and high in tannins and …. accentuates potency, concentration, extract and tannin’.
The stage was thus set. The (marketing) theory understood. Glasses lined up and ready, it was time to pour the wine. I checked on the Appearance, Nose and Palate in turn for the 3 glasses, being careful to pour to similar levels and to give each as close to the same exposure time in the glass as the other two. The Appearance of the wine in each glass was remarkably similar, their difference in surface area made more obvious now that they were filled.
I assessed the Nose without swirling to begin as this could give the greatest clue to any difference between them, first from the ISO glass to the Zalto and then back the other way. The Cabernet Sauvignon in the small tasting glass showed the least intensity and the least complexity of indistinct dark fruits compared with the other two. To my surprise, the Riedel picked out the vanilla notes from the oak maturation ahead of a greater fruit aroma intensity. The large surface area of the Zalto glass gave a much headier wine as the 14% alcohol evaporated with greater intensity of fruity notes. Swirling brought out the fruit character in all three glasses. I detected cassis and bramble dark fruits in the ISO glass together with vanilla. There was a marked improvement with the Riedel with a greater intensity. The wine was still vanilla led but showed cherry and black damson plum fruits, then more secondary aromas as the wine opened up in the glass. The Zalto revealed even more but the difference to the Riedel was less than I expected. The intensity was greater but the larger concentration offset by the wider rim, so the Cabernet Sauvignon was not as focused on the nose.
Unsurprisingly, my findings on the Palate reflected those of the Nose. The ISO glass presented the Cabernet Sauvignon as quite a well-rounded wine with young, structured tannins. The intensity was greater than on the Nose but the wine was nonetheless one dimensional. The Riedel glass offered a much fuller experience with better defined primary fruits, more secondary character and underlying Cabernet Sauvignon savoury flavours. The complexity grew as the wine opened up to reveal a more potent and powerful wine. The Palate was bigger still with the Zalto with similar complexity to the Riedel but with a deeper intensity. I tasted again to focus on the tannins. The oak in the tasting glass was very defined, being closed, tight and angular. Whilst the Riedel also offered defined tannins, they were better balanced against the fruit than the ISO glass. In contrast, the Zalto tannins were softer and less coarse.
In summary, this was a fascinating tasting that offered some surprises. The difference overall between the Zalto and Riedel glasses was less than with the ISO tasting glass. That did not surprise as one begins to compare levels of excellence. The large surface area of the Zalto allows plenty of rapid oxidation in the glass, enhanced by swirling, that brought out the complexity and intensity of the wine together with softening the tannins. This allowed a more subtle experience. The presentation of the secondary vanilla notes with the Riedel did surprise but the glass offered a wine with good balance as it opened up, taking longer than for the Zalto. The simple experience of the ISO glass – whether in fruit complexity and intensity or balance on the Palate – did not altogether surprise. It was, however, worrying for me when I consider it is the glass of choice in most Tasting Rooms. I wonder if this is realised and the implications for wine sales given the importance to showcase wines to buying visitors at their best. There is certainly food for thought there. I shall be repeating this tasting experiment shortly with a white wine to compare. Meanwhile, this is an easy exercise to try at home and well worthwhile.
For the moment, size – and shape – do matter.
2018 Stellenbosch Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – R160